Sunday, 19 January 2020

Maramures Part 1 - The Journey North

Sunset in Bucharest.
My bunk for the night.
I love train travel.
July had flown by! I don't know if it felt the same for everyone else, but for me it was over before I knew it. Work at the camp was over for another year, and although sad to see the students for the last time, as some of them wouldn't be coming back due to age restrictions, it was good to be free! We loaded up our ride back to Bucharest and jumped in, ready to chill for the 3 hours it would take (in good traffic) to reach the hotel. I had a week before heading off on my real holidays, a week to kill in Romania, and I wasn't exactly sure what the plan was. I'd spent plenty of time in the capital, so much so that I wasn't really that interested in another day even, sorry to be said. Last year I caught a bus down to Bulgaria as well as spending some time in Sinai and Brasov. A few years back I worked my way up by train to Sibiu and Sighisoara and loved it. I was hard pressed for somewhere I could go, by public transport, and something that wouldn't be just another city to walk around. I really wanted a little outdoor time, to enjoy the countryside and the sun at the start of August. So I got speaking to some of the Romanian teachers during the drive down and decided to follow their advice and head North. Far North, right up to the border of the Ukraine into Mureș County, the historical region of Transylvania. After getting back to the city, I crashed at the hotel for a bit before heading back out for dinner and a beer with the other teachers. It was good to get out of camp, have a proper, non-camp meal, and a few beers. Plans were talked about and it was decided - a train to the North! I made a trip to the train station the next morning to check out times and prices, and ended up booking an overnight, sleeper train to Baia Mare for the same night.

All aboard and let's go!
One of the many churches in this city.
A big brick church.
Baia Mare.
I'd been on trains in Romania before, and they were always interesting, but this was my first time on a sleeper. I got to the station around 9, a few snacks already bought, and got on my train. I found my carriage and bunk easily enough, folded my bed down and made myself comfortable. Only 2 more people were in my carriage, which was good, as the last thing I needed was for it to be packed, hot and sweaty and even noisy or smelly. As the train started off into the night, I got my book and started to read a bit before trying to get some sleep. My bed was surprisingly comfortable and I soon started to get sleepy, enjoying the movement of the train and the steady clickity-clack of the wheels on the rails. My cabin mates were also getting comfortable, but not quite ready for bed. There was an older woman travelling with a man, mother and son I thought, and while she had gone to bed, he was on his phone and was happily looking at photos of semi-naked women. I have no idea if it was Tinder or Facebook (or some other app), but he was unashamedly scrolling through loads of photos of girls in skimpy outfits. Each to their own I guess, even when your mother is sleeping above you. I turned over and went to sleep and hours later I awoke to the steady noise of a moving train and the sun just peeking over the horizon and into my face through the window. Not a bad way to wake up, not quite going to sleep in one country and waking up in another, but I'd soon find out that this part of Romania is very different to what I'm used to. I got off at my stop, after quickly re-folding my bed, and walked out into Baia Mare, 600 kilometres from Bucharest, 70 km from the border with Hungary, and 50 km from the border with Ukraine. Let the adventure begin!

My first wooden church in Maramures... but there's more to come!
Stephen's Tower in 
Building in the centre - looks like an old theatre, now a supermarket.
Baia Mare - pretty but not much to do.
The hunt for accommodation began as soon as I stepped off the train. I hadn't booked anything before getting here as I wanted to know the lay of the land first. Having no idea where I was, or even what I was going to do, I headed more or less for the centre, checking out Google Maps for places to sleep along the way. There wasn't much in the way of hostels or cheap stays. I spotted the Hotel Mara, a big concrete building shining white in the sun, which looked quite fancy even though I think it had seen better days - it was still definitely out of my price range. I kept going, following Google to one place but then found myself in front of a slightly shady looking apartment building and nothing more. I managed to find a good deal at a small motel for a third of the price of the Mara, with an en-suite room, air-con and a 5 minute walk to a big supermarket. This would be be spot for the night, my place to cool down after walking all day and put together my plan of operations - I still had no idea what to see and do! The plan was to walk into the old centre, find a tourist information spot and get some ideas. I know what you're thinking - why get an overnight train to somewhere if you have no idea what to do? I did have some idea of what was here and what I wanted to see, just how I was going to go about it was the problem. In this part of the country they are famous for their wooden churches and rustic countryside. I wanted to see some of these churches and do some walking. The town centre was a little disappointing, but then again I wasn't sure what I was expecting. It was quiet and just a few bars and restaurants in the main square. Some buildings were quite nice but most were a little run down and nothing really special. The only thing of note is Stephen's Tower, a 40m tall, stone, Neo-Gothic stone tower. Originally the bell tower for the church built in the late 14th Century, it was rebuilt in 1559 and restored in 1619 and a mechanical clock was finally added in 1628. It sits in a small square with a (closed) museum and 2 churches. Nice for a few pics but not much else.

The Tower and churches.
The River Sasar that runs through the city.
The Butcher's Tower - last part of the old wall.
A very large church.
I found the tourist information in the square as well, although it was easy to miss. Google kept pointing me in the general direction, and I always seemed to over-shoot the target, until I discovered it was down some fairly well hidden stairs. After all that work, there was next to nothing in regards to pamphlets and things to do in the area, so I moved on. I walked down to the river and found the County Museum of History and Archaeology, but was also let down by this as there was nobody there and didn't seem to be anything on display. I walked in (for free) and wandered around for a bit, only to find locked doors and not much else. Feeling hot and a bit bothered, I decided to walk to the tour agent which I'd found and see what deals they had. This was the best thing I'd done all day as I walked right past another tourist information kiosk, this one in the local council chambers. The people here, both of whom spoke English extremely well, were very helpful and gave me plenty of ideas. I now had more of a plan of attack and also had to do it on my own - I found that tour agency and everything was already booked out. I walked back to the train station, where the bus station was also, and enquired about a bus to where I needed to go to start my do-it-yourself wooden church tour. The building, which must have been built in the Soviet days, was interesting in an ugly, concrete, half-falling apart kind of way. The guy there didn't sell me a ticket, and there was only hand-written information (all in Romanian), so he just told me that you can buy one of the bus and that the bus will be here around 6:30am. He wasn't exactly sure of the time (but told me not to worry), which didn't give me a great feeling, but figured if I'm 15 minutes early, luck would be on my side. It was a productive day and I felt good having organised everything myself from scratch. I did get up early and got the bus too, and that was the start of my real adventure into this part of the country!

Stephen's Tower.
The town centre of Baia Mare.
Interesting sculpture in the centre.
Big bells.
The bus picked up people along the way, anywhere along the road as far as I could see, and let people off as well. I couldn't see the system to it, but I'm sure there was one, an unwritten country law between bus driver and passenger. I was watching on my mobile to see where I needed to get off, as nobody spoke English well and I couldn't pronounce the name of the town properly either. The little red bus drove through Baia Spire and down to Șurdești, my stop. I asked the driver to let me off, and he didn't really believe me that I wanted to stop in the middle of nowhere at 7am in the morning. A lone tourist with hiking boots and backpack isn't a common sight here I don't think. I pretty much jumped out and immediately felt the fresh air of the countryside after being jammed in with (already) sweaty and smelly people. To be fair, I was offered a seat by a gypsy family at the back and I ended up sharing half a seat with and old lady, I shouldn't be so nasty about how they smelt - it was probably the old bus to be fair. I found my first wooden church within minutes, although I don't think it was one of the old ones on the route. There was nobody there, and the lock on the gate was a simple stick passed though a hole, so I walked in and even climbed the small bell tower for a view of the surrounding countryside. Already feeling fantastic and free, I hiked off down the road to see the next church. I saw 2 other churches, tall, wooden structures that were built nearly 300 years ago! The Biserica Penticostala Șurdești (Church of the Holy Archangels) was a particularly impressive sight, and I was there practically alone, apart from 2 couples in camper vans who'd slept in the car park overnight. Although I couldn't go inside and see the 18th century paintings, the outside was amazing enough. Black in some parts, the newer roof 'tiles' were fresh and a light brown colour, showing the restorations taking place. After some quiet time and some photos, I walked up up the hill, aiming to hit the road and somehow get 18kms to the next town and my next church. I walked through little hamlets, Romanian homesteads with farm animals and dogs everywhere, fruit and vegetables growing everywhere, green grass and freshly stacked hay in fields - the postcard scene of Romania that I love. I even saw a huge pig in his little pen, built right up against the house and barns with cows ready to be hand milked. Gorgeous countryside and something I'll never forget. 

The country life.
But my adventures here weren't over yet - I still had more to see and do here. I had to hitchhike to the next town, do some more hiking along country roads, find more transport to get to a place where I could stay the night, as well as see the Happy Cemetery and more. This trip was going along very smoothly, and making it up as I went along was turning out to be just the right way to do it!

Maramureș County - The Real Romania.
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MyUncleTravellingMatt. August 2019.

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